Monday, March 23, 2015

Street View

In a bout of nostalgia, I googled 'Sevres, France' the other day, a suburb halfway between Paris and Versailles, where my family moved to, after the War. Not only did I google it, I ogled at it with Google map's 'street view' , zooming in on the minutest details of the place where I grew up. This turned into a daily obsession and I found myself maneuvering my way around the narrow streets of a place that until now had the decency of only existing in my memories and my dreams.

I knew Sevres still existed, but who cared? 'Apres moi, le deluge' was my motto, when it came to memories. But street view burst my bubble. There was no deluge apres moi. Sevres was as alive now as it had always been. It hadn't even changed an iota. I felt cheated. What was the use of lugging all these memories around, when some present day high tech camera can drive around and record in a few minutes what had taken me a life time to preserve in my head?

With all this ogling, I wasn't sure any more what was memory and what was real. Little drawers kept popping open in my head, spilling their content onto the computer screen. Here is Madame Niel's house, the tall and skinny lady who had given me piano lessons. There is the corner store where we bought baguettes and lard, which we used to make our daily artery clogging sandwiches.

I zoomed in onto the iron gate mortared into the wall surrounding the house at 34bis. I expected the gate to open onto the lovely manicured garden with rose bushes and an arch covered with lilacs, but street view wasn't allowed in. At least that garden will remain the private property of my memories.

Sevres is built in a valley, flanked by the Bois de Meudon on one side and the Parc Saint Cloud on the other and as the town grew, it crawled up the two hills. A series of long stone stairs were carved into the hill, to create shortcuts between the steep, winding streets. Those stairs made living in Sevres a special experience. Huffing and puffing, every time my mother sent me down to the village to get groceries, I was compelled to count those steps. '139.. 140... 141..'. For some reason they never ended up to the official 144 steps.

Other than being the town where my family lived, Sevres is also known for its porcelain industry and for being the home of the first and only prototype meter, an alloy bar that measures exactly one meter. My brother and I joked that some day we would sneak into the building, replace the alloy bar with a slightly longer one, and thus create worldwide havoc. The French baguette would now be too short, children would be officially declared midgets and even the speed of light would have to be adjusted.

It took me a few zooms and turns to find the entrance to the 'Parc Saint Cloud', the woods where we used to play. The six foot high stone wall had been a perfect excuse to show off my daredevil skills, until the day I fell off and scraped my knees almost to the bone. But my battle scars were a source of great pride to me. I loved climbing trees, run down steep hills until my legs couldn't keep up with the speed of my descent and I dared my twin sister to jump off ledges that were twice our size. She always wisely declined, which gave me a great sense of superiority over my 'little' twin sister. After all, I was 15 minutes older.

The Parc Saint Cloud is a mini version of the grounds at Versailles. It was built as a park by Louis XV and given as a present to his famous mistress, Madame de Pompadour. It even housed a palace which Napoleon's troops accidentally burnt down when they were fighting the Prussians. The forest is crisscrossed by wide 'allees' with tall chestnut trees. We spent hours gathering chestnuts, crushing their sharp spiked husks with a rock, until they revealed a shiny brown 'marron', as if little gnomes had spent the whole night polishing them.

There was nothing that Google's street view had missed. The incredible view of the whole of Paris from 'La Lanterne', a point where all the allees converge, looked as beautiful as I remembered it.

And here I was, thinking that I had special memories. Now street view comes along and any Tom, Dick and Harry can see what took ME years of living there, suffering through post-war poverty, walking down the streets of Sevres in cheap Red Cross issued shoes, held together with staples...

What's the use of memories, I ask you? Google now has a new feature, which lets you view things in the past. Their fancy schmancy google camera started recording in 2007, so you have the option of using street view to see how things looked almost a decade ago! I tell you, fifty years from now, we won't need our memories any more. All we'll need is street view. leave comment here